Restoration

During Spring Break, I was able to work with a group of middle school, high school, and college students as they prayed and did service projects for neighbors around our church building. It was amazing to watch.

These young people chose to spend their week off of school serving others. 3800 homes in our community were prayed over. Over 80 service projects were completed. Relationships were initiated or strengthened.

And this year, we had a new element: a group from Brazil came and worked with us. Our students did their best to learn Portuguese and be able to communicate better. They listened well and patiently as English was translated into Portuguese. There were even times when no translation was necessary. Even though the words were not understood, the spirit of the message was. And worship was incredible. The following is a short video of one song we sung in two languages:

It is amazing to witness young people pour out their hearts in worship. It is so much fun to watch them enjoy working for others. And it is great beyond words to see them welcome the stranger.

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This past weekend, I was able to spend time with a group of high school guys for our annual Man Retreat. The purpose of this weekend is to explore what it means to be a man of God. Different men from different walks of life come and share their knowledge and experience. This year, a panel of women spoke about growing up into men of God. There is a lot of time for fun and relaxation, but there is also time of service and worship. It is a great weekend.

And the best part is: it is planned by the high school students themselves. They name the speakers they want to hear from. They come up with the topics and questions. They decide what volunteer service projects they want to do. They lead the worship.

This group of teenagers has already figured out the messages they are getting from the world around them are not good enough; many of the messages are outright lies. And they recognize that. They know something is not right and they are seeking to find better answers. There is a wisdom present that far exceeds their relatively young experience.

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At this point in my sobriety journey, the temptation is not so much using again. The temptation is to despair. To be cynical. To see the bad in everything.

It doesn’t lead me to want to drink, but it does lead me to want to believe life sucks and it’s not going to get any better.

And then I see a group of high school guys buying flowers and delivering them (along with hugs) to a woman grieving the loss of her mother.

And then I see a group of teenage men and women holding hands with strangers and praying.

And then a group of teenage guys tell me they want to be children of God and not just blindly accept what popular culture says about manhood.

And then I worship by listening to a song sung in a different language.

I learned early on in sobriety that I was not going to be able to thrive or even survive on my own. But for so long, I thought that just meant I would be relying on other recovering addicts—and I have relied on them to my benefit.

But what I am learning more and more is that the help I need sometimes transcends addiction and recovery. Sometimes, the help I need comes from young women and men who are willing to devote their lives to something they believe is greater than themselves.

They restore my faith.

In my drinking, I turned to alcohol to cover over all the bad that existed. If I was too sad, or too happy, or too troubled, or too bored, or too awake…I would drink. I would cover over my reality with alcohol.

In my sobriety, I turn to cynicism. I cover over all the good that exists with sarcastic reminders of how bad everything can be. I watch the news and the literal theater that politics has become and I truly think all hope is lost.

And there is a lot of help I can receive in a 12 step group, but my soul is restored when I spend time with these young people. They remind me that life is much larger than myself. They show me there is reason to have hope. They teach me what joy can come from service. They know how to have fun.

Some days, I need to be restored. Thank God for the young people who do exactly that.

Open Letter of Apology to Teenagers

I shared this last year after a weekend retreat with the male high school students. I learned a lot that weekend. Mostly, I learned that we as adults are not doing a good job of listening to our kids. Let’s make a commitment to listen. And change.

Dear teenagers,

On behalf of adults everywhere, I want to apologize.

We have made your lives too busy. We remember our high school experience and the experiences of all of our friends and family members. And we want you to live all of it. We want you to be involved in sports, theater, afterschool programs, volunteer projects, church groups, and get certified in CPR. We have pushed and pushed and pushed until your schedules are way too full. We have made you feel like failures when you cannot keep up. We have encouraged you to choose activities over your spiritual life. We think your commitment to your sports team is more important than your commitment to your spiritual development.

We have made you so busy, you are not sleeping well and you are not eating well. We encourage you to eat quickly so you microwave a dinner or grab a value meal from a fast food restaurant. If you eat at all. You are tired and unhealthy and we push you even harder. We are pushing too hard and we are sorry.

We are also sorry that we have cared more about test scores and college admission than we have about education. We have grown up and become teachers and administrators. We have looked for more bottom line results to show that we are doing an effective job. We have been emphasizing the importance of getting high scores on achievement tests, SATs, and ACTs. We have failed to realize how stressed out you are about taking these tests.

We are in the position of voting people in, campaigning for what is important, and being involved in your education. We have become lazy and done little more than complain. And as we have stood by you have been falling deeper and deeper into your anxiety. We are sorry.

We are sorry that we have underestimated you. You are intelligent, caring, and passionate for justice in the world. But we treat you like you are little more than wound up balls of hormones. Yes, you are struggling with temptation and yes, you are struggling with physical, mental, and emotional development. But you also know that you want people to be treated fairly. You want people to be treated with respect and equality.

You may face the temptation to look at pornography, but deep down you know how terrible it is for people, especially women, to be degraded that way. And you feel you cannot talk to us about it because we have hidden all of our struggles from you. We pretend we have it all together and we hold you to such unimaginably high expectations that we have left no space for you to feel like you can ask for help.

You have been fighting and fighting and fighting to do the right things, but we have not supported you the way we should have. Now, you are self-harming, using drugs, and being medicated for anxiety or depression in astronomical numbers.

And it is our fault.

We are sorry. We want to start listening. We want to start helping. So please keep talking. Please talk to us even when it seems like we aren’t listening. Because we probably aren’t. But we need to. So talk to us until we listen.

Tell us how tired you are. Tell us how committed you are to fighting for justice. Tell us how much you thirst for knowledge. Tell us how much you want to explore and question spirituality.

Tell us what we need to hear.

Tell us until we listen.

Because listening is the best way we can show you we are sorry.

Signed,

Adults

My Name Is Paul And I Am An Alcoholic, Step 7

One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 7. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle with what to do. My hope is that this series will help those who are not in recovery learn more about their friends and family members who are in recovery. I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns you may have!

“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings” (Step 7).

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76).

“For thousands of years we have been demanding more than our share of security, prestige, and romance. When we seemed to be succeeding, we drank to dream still greater dreams. When we were frustrated, even in part, we drank for oblivion. Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted. In all these strivings, so many of them well-intentioned, our crippling handicap had been our lack of humility. We had lacked the perspective to see that character-building and spiritual values had to come first, and that material satisfactions were not the purpose of living” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 71).

The 12 Step process is exactly that: a process. In Step 6, the recovering alcoholic becomes willing. Nothing can happen without willingness. Once the alcoholic is willing, they turn to their God. We do so humbly.

Humility is a difficult concept for most humans. Bill Wilson suggests that most people hate the word and the concept. But for addicts, there seems to be an increased struggle with the idea. Everything about addiction screams selfishness and pride: “I want what I want when I want it and I deserve it. Now.”

It is the lack of humility that drives the force of the drinking. When things are good, we celebrate as much as we can because we have earned it. When things are bad, we drown our sorrows as much as we can because no one has ever experienced the depths of the despair that we have. Because of our pride we drink.

This is often difficult to grasp: the drug is not the issue for the addict. The issue is the lack of humility that exists in the addict. Removing the drug or the drink is a vitally important step in the process.

But it is far from the final one.

Closely linked with our lack of humility is fear. As Wilson says, “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration.”

Again, this is not directly linked to the alcohol. It is linked to the pride. If I am to give up control of my life, if I am to truly ask humbly to have my shortcomings taken away, I will likely not get my way. And if I don’t get my way, I have no idea what might happen.

And that fear drives us to think we must be in complete control of everything at all times, and that control leads us to drink to dream higher dreams or to drink to oblivion to forget everything around us.

The alcohol is such a small part of our disease. The lack of humility and presence of fear are much more damaging. And in Step 7, after we have become willing, we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. We have put down the substance of our addiction. We now move on to removing those things that fed the addiction.

So what role can non-addicts play in supporting those who are in recovery at this stage in the process?

First, remember that you cannot force another person into humility. Forcing others to practice humility is just another form of humiliation. And if you gain nothing else from all of these posts on the 12 Steps, please get this: every addict and alcoholic has suffered more than their fair share of humiliation; it is the last thing they need.

This is based purely on my experience and anecdotal evidence, it is not scientifically proven: I believe the worst thing churches and families have done to people in recovery is brand them with a new kind of scarlet A. Churches and families believe the recovering addict needs to jump through humiliating hoops in order to prove their worthiness. As if breaking the cycle of addiction, dealing with all the consequences of their addicted lives, and adjusting to life without the drug is not enough, now others want to make people prove they are good enough?

In church communities and in families recovering addicts are often singled out. Maybe this is because the results of being drunk or being high are often obvious and public. Maybe it is because relapse rates are high and there is always a question if someone will maintain their sobriety.

But a recovering alcoholic should have to do nothing no other member of a faith community has to do to prove his or her worth. All of us are unworthy. All of us are in need of grace. Alcoholics/Addicts don’t need more. Treating like they do does not increase their opportunities for humility; it only humiliates them.

Second, practice and share humility in community.  Step 7 is when recovering addicts and alcoholics pray to have God take every bad thing away. The prayer asks for every defect of character, everything that stands in the way of our usefulness, to be taken away. Alcoholics, indeed any type of addict, deal with much more than just the substance of the addiction. There is pride, fear, greed, shame, dishonesty, and so much more that drives the addiction.

In recovery, we ask for all of those things to be taken away. Just like any Christian should. AA has thrived for over 75 years because they have grasped the meaning and importance of community. One alcoholic helping another alcoholic. The model has sprouted at least 50+ groups (12step.com has a list of them).

But in churches, we often miss both the meaning and importance of community. There is nothing unique to the alcoholic’s experience in recovery. The addict reconnects with God, spends time in personal reflection, makes necessary personal changes, and then works to reconcile with others (the next 2 steps). These are all things every Christian should be doing.

So let’s do this together. I need my brothers and sisters who are not recovering addicts to walk alongside me. Allow me to see that you struggle in ways that I may not. Learn from me and my story of addiction. Let’s tell each other our stories. Let’s pray for each other. Let’s learn what humility truly is together. Let’s walk hand in hand so that we can overcome our fears together.

This is a process. It is a process that demands community.

Book Review: When Helping Hurts

On the second Thursday of each month, I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is When Helping Hurts. It is an essential resource for anyone who desires to help people in poverty; domestically or internationally. You can purchase it here:

http://www.amazon.com/When-Helping-Hurts-Alleviate-Yourself/dp/0802457061

When someone needs help, what is your first reaction? Probably to provide the most pressing, obvious need. Maybe even go above and beyond to take care of the person. For instance, take the person at the street corner asking for whatever change you can spare; maybe you give them some change but then also take them to the closest fast food restaurant and buy them a meal.

And that is a good thing. But it may not be the best thing.

Our country is full of people who want to help others. That’s why we see so many churches and other organizations sending truckloads full of supplies and carloads full of people to places that are devastated by hurricanes or tornadoes. That’s why so many popular media outlets set up the opportunity to text in donations for causes across the world. There are numerous agencies that send people into distant countries to help fight the extreme poverty that exists.

All of these are good things. But we need to ask if they are the best thing.

In When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert challenge us to understand, truly understand, poverty. In truth, all of us experience poverty in some way, whether it is poverty of resources or poverty of being.

Early in the book, Corbett and Fikkert make two major points: first, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (p. 61). Second, “one of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich—their god-complexes—and the poverty of being of the economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame” (p. 62).

This book will challenge its readers to articulate their definitions. What is your worldview? How do you define poverty? What do you think causes poverty? Why do people stay in poverty? Many of us have made up our minds on these questions and may not even realize it. Reading this book will help give a good foundation for understanding the causes of poverty and the best tools to move people out of poverty.

Overall, the most important point the authors make is that in order to combat poverty we need relationships. It is not helpful to insert ourselves into people’s lives for a short time, give to them out of our abundance, and then leave. We must listen to people who are in need; find out what they truly need. We need to build relationships. This means listening, repenting, reconciling, and empowering.

In other words, we need to move from a relief model to a development model. Corbett and Fikkert speak a lot about the need for development as well as the difference in Doing To, Doing For, Doing With, and Responding To.

The challenge for many people is to realize that it is not our duty to swoop in and give those who have less what we think they need. We need to repent of the ways we have failed the poor among us in the past and look for ways to serve those in poverty around us.

Finding Our Battles

Have you ever fought the wrong battle?

This past summer, just before I graduated with two Master’s degrees, I was having trouble with my lawnmower. It sputtered out on me and would not work. So I peeked in the gas tank, saw some shimmery substance, and tried to start the mower again. It did not work.

Determined to fix the lawnmower without needing help (like I normally do with anything mechanical), I went to buy a new spark plug. Still nothing. So I bought a new air filter. (Technically, my dad bought them for me since he and my mom were here visiting for my graduation.) Still did not work.

I gave in. I asked my friend, Terry, for help. He came over. He looked in the gas tank. Bone dry.

I was fighting the wrong battle.

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Have you ever fought the wrong battle? Unfortunately, I can safely assume that if you are a Christian in America today, you have. We (apparently) love to fight and to argue. We are arguing about what people who sell duck calls say and where they speak. We are arguing about chicken sandwiches and craft supplies. We are arguing about non-discriminatory hiring practices. We are arguing about a movie’s interpretation of a story. We are arguing that entitled rich white men on one side of the aisle have a better view of what’s right for the country than the entitled rich white men on the other side of the aisle.

We are fighting and fighting and fighting.

But none of it is the right battle to be engaged in.

There are people in my immediate social circles who are hurting right now. Their pain is very real. They are confused. They are sad. They feel helpless or hopeless. They feel like they just want to crawl under a rock and weep. They wonder when the pain is going to stop. They wonder when things will finally start going their way.

They wonder when people who claim the name of “Christian” will actually pay any attention to them.

If we are going to fight, let’s fight for those the people of God have been called to fight for since the beginning:

Widows

Orphans

Foreigners

Poor

Let’s fight for the people Jesus fought for: women and children, socially outcast, poor, sick, and religious outsiders.

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Do you want to know the cure for fighting too much?

Stop fighting.

Quit arguing. Quit being defensive. Quit trying to prove that you are right.

Stop fighting and start listening.

Listen to what other people have to say. Listen without responding. Learn where they are coming from and why. Pay close attention and maybe you will find that you have more in common than you realize.

Stop fighting and start looking at the people in your neighborhood, at your church, at your work, or in your family.

Who are the ones who need something you have to offer? Give it to them. Provide blessings for those who go without. Provide a voice for those who think they have none.

Stop fighting and start loving.

Stop fighting and start serving.

At the very least, stop fighting the wrong battles.